IT WAS BEFORE DAWN on the morning of 12 August 1998. I sat up, confused by an unexpected sound. My first cellphone, a large, unwieldy purple-coloured Nokia, was ringing away on a table across the room. I struggled to get out from under the mosquito net tied to the ancient, uncomfortable four-poster bed I was sleeping on, in a draughty inhospitable bungalow belonging to a Parsi family in the Pune Cantonment. Rules about noise, sleeping, waking, phoning and such matters were pretty strict, even for a guest like me. My caller, a grown man, was crying. DR Nagaraj, thinker, friend, teacher, and possibly one of post-colonial India’s five greatest intellectuals, had died late that night of a heart attack, at his home in south Bangalore. He had been up past midnight, drinking with his friends, eating rich food that was specifically disallowed to him. He had been in great spirits. He was 44.
That awful morning, I stood in the darkness, thinking I was having a nightmare, and if I only waited a few moments, I would wake up from it. The Parsi family forgot their rules about disturbance and gathered round, trying to console me. More than 12 years have passed, and like all those who knew and cared about DR, I am still inconsolable. When I now read the last sentence of his essay, ‘The Lie of a Youth and the Truth of an Anthropologist,’ it seems to me cutting, unfair, breaking the bounds of irony and bordering on tragedy: “Politics teaches us to live, not die,” he wrote. So why did he have to die?
The answer might lie in the slogan that DR gave to the new Dalit and Shudra literary movement in Karnataka in the 1970s: “Let poetry be a sword!” Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi, a former student of DR and editor of this new volume of his published and unpublished work, spells out the unusual manifesto in its entirety: Khadgavagali kavya, janara novige midiva pranamitra! Poetry, or literature, in this conception, was to be both a dear friend and a protector of the people. When I try to rationalise his death, I tell myself perhaps it was inevitable that someone who based his politics on the power of poetic language would not live very long on this earth.